Why it's time for a revolution in school improvement

We need to question our fundamental assumptions about what school improvement should look like, says Leora Cruddas

Leora Cruddas

Multi-academy trusts: We're witnessing a revolution in school improvement, says Leora Cruddas

We are witnessing a paradigm shift in improving schools.

The theory of paradigm shifts is most closely associated with the physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions: for example, when Copernicus proved that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

While perhaps not of the same order as the Copernican revolution in scientific thought, we are currently undergoing a paradigm shift in school improvement. In what was until recently the dominant paradigm, specialists from outside schools came in to advise on what a school should do to improve.

More recently, with the rise of groups of schools in multi-academy trusts, there has been a shift away from this legacy model, towards a view that improvement is best achieved by being part of an organisation set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools. 

The value of multi-academy trusts

A key difference between the two paradigms of improvement is a view about where expertise lies and who is responsible for improvement. 

In the initial paradigm, school-improvement expertise was perceived to lie outside schools, and the prevailing mindset was that local authorities were responsible for improving the schools they maintained.

In the new paradigm, school-improvement expertise is perceived to lie within the system: within schools themselves. School improvement is best achieved within the structure of school trusts.

School trusts provide the clearest and most secure form of oversight and accountability. The buck stops with the trust.

Ofsted’s report Fight or flight? How ‘stuck’ schools are overcoming isolation begins to provide the evidence for this new approach.

Through an analysis of “stuck schools”, it calls into question the effectiveness and impact of the many and various improvement interventions mandated by successive governments.

The report finds: “These [government-funded support] programmes have not had an effect in stuck schools, and they are not perceived to have been transformative in unstuck schools either.”

Ofsted and 'stuck' schools

Ofsted defines a "stuck" school as a school or its predecessor that has had consistently weak inspection outcomes over the past 13 years. It defines "unstuck" schools as those that had previously had four full inspections that were graded less than "good" but have since had two "good" inspections. 

In Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts, the dominant paradigm is rendered incompatible with the new phenomenon, facilitating the adoption of a new theory or paradigm.

I would suggest that we must now abandon the legacy paradigm of improving schools. The Ofsted report has exposed some of its fatal flaws:

  • Too much school-improvement advice from too many different quarters of the school system.
  • Poor matching between the problems of the school and the advice on offer.
  • Insufficient attention to the context of the school.
  • Too little time to fully diagnose the issues within the school.
  • Trying to implement too many strategies at once.

Crucial to success

Ofsted’s report considers carefully the impact of effective school trusts.

The unstuck schools in the research that were part of a school trust (only half the sample) considered belonging to a trust as crucial to their recent success. The emergent features of this improvement model appear to be:

  • Advice and support that are built into an improvement strategy and delivered internally.
  • Those delivering the support have the required knowledge and experience.
  • A small number of core improvement goals: most commonly, support that is focused on revising and implementing a consistent behaviour policy and upholding high standards of teaching.
  • The support is bespoke to the school, and time is spent with teachers and leaders.
  • The school trust’s role in raising expectations, knowledge sharing and developing curriculum subject expertise – with the caveat that the capacity and management of the trust appears to be critical. 
  • The school trust has strong systems of accountability and oversight – the research found that the only schools that thought they were effectively held to account were unstuck schools in multi-academy trusts.

However, the Ofsted research also finds that this approach to improvement did not always materialise, because of a lack of capacity within the trust. 

The size of the trust matters

Almost all stuck academies are, in fact, part of a multi-academy trust. However, the research shows that around half of these are part of trusts with fewer than 10 academies. This may be significant – it may mean that the scale that some medium and larger trusts can bring to support stuck schools is not being maximised. 

More research is needed, but we can build on the lessons from effective trusts in this report to develop our understanding of how to maximise improvement.

The Ofsted report found that there were two circumstances where leaders of education were perceived to work well: the first was when leaders had been found from staff within the trust, rather than outside it. The second was when leaders took the time to understand the school and deliver bespoke support.

In terms of our new paradigm, leaders of education are not external to the system of schooling. They are typically successful leaders working in schools or multi-academy trusts. What the Ofsted research shows is that they work well in certain conditions. But they cannot be genericists.

We need leaders of education who have secure knowledge of all aspects of improvement, and who are themselves experienced leaders able to apply the evidence in contextually specific ways.

The report signposts a significant body of literature on implementation science: “The literature tends to find positive effects of using an active implementation framework, which advocates introducing initiatives that are flexible enough to be implemented with high fidelity.” 

The Education Endowment Foundation makes use of this literature in Putting evidence to work: a school’s guide to implementation.

Context-specific initiatives

Ofsted’s review of research also suggests that context-specific initiatives are more effective for schools that are struggling the most. This follows a wider body of literature that supports the idea of balancing the fidelity of implementation with flexibility.

The rejection of genericism in favour of expert leaders with strong domain-specific knowledge who recognise the importance of context chimes with recent theory-building from, among others, Tom ReesSteve Rollett and Ben White

This research is important, because it begins to break the impasse in competing theories of improvement. It signals a way forward for both policy and practice.

For policymakers, it is important that the plethora of government-funded improvement initiatives is reviewed in light of the emerging evidence. The formerly dominant paradigm of improvement from a range of initiatives outside of schools needs to be stood down. Policy needs to follow the emergent new paradigm both in terms of the potential impact of effective trusts in improving schools, and in terms of what is now required from leaders of education.

In terms of practice, it is imperative that we understand the emergent features of the improvement model in the new paradigm. We need to recognise the balance between fidelity of implementation and flexibility to fit context. 

It is time to leave the old paradigm behind and embrace the Copernican revolution in improving schools – improvement is best achieved by being part of an organisation set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools.

Over the next decade, we need to ensure that all schools are part of a strong and sustainable group, and that school trusts embrace the best evidence we have on how to improve schools at scale.

Leora Cruddas is chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts. She tweets @LeoraCruddas

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